MEXICO CITY: After 13 years on the lam, the world’s most powerful drug kingpin was captured in a Mexican beach city, frogmarched by marines and flown to prison, abruptly ending his blood-stained reign.
In a United States (US)-backed raid, Mexican marines arrested Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Saturday morning (Sunday in Manila) without a shot fired in a condominium in Mazatlan, a Pacific resort city in his home state of Sinaloa, officials said.
The arrest is a major victory for President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose administration is striving to tame a spiral of drug violence that has killed more than 77,000 people in the past seven years.
The man whose nickname means “shorty” headed Mexico’s most powerful gang, the Sinaloa cartel, an empire that stretches along the Pacific coast and smuggles drugs to the United States, Europe and Asia.
Hours after his capture, the 56-year-old drug lord was taken to Mexico City’s airport, where he was paraded in front of television cameras, wearing a white shirt and jeans and sporting thick black hair and matching mustache.
He was flanked by two masked marines who held him by the arms and the back of the neck before hauling him inside a federal police helicopter, which flew him to a maximum-security prison.
US lawyer Gen. Eric Holder hailed the arrest as “a landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.”
The United States had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Guzman, who is accused of being behind much of the drug violence that has plagued Mexico for years.
Lawyer Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said “nobody was hurt” in the arrest, which was the result of months of collaborative work with US law enforcement agencies that led to 13 arrests and the seizure of more than 100 weapons.
The authorities had tracked Guzman down in Culiacan, Sinaloa state’s largest city, and came close to capturing him between February 13 and 17 in one of the seven homes he was using.
But Guzman managed to escape through specially built tunnels linked to city drainage systems as security forces struggled to break down a steel-reinforced door, Murillo Karam said.
Guzman was eventually detained with an unidentified associate in Mazatlan.
A US security official said Mexican forces had acted on intelligence from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
“We’ve been actively tracking him for five weeks. Because of that pressure, he fled in the last couple of days [from Culiacan]to Mazatlan,” the official told Agence France-Presse on condition on anonymity.
His arrest gives Peña Nieto another celebration following the capture of the head of the ultra-violent Zetas drug cartel, Miguel Angel Trevino, in July 2013.
Pena Nieto praised his security forces on Twitter, saying “congratulations to all.”
Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said it was “the most important drug war capture of the last 10 years, a great triumph for Peña Nieto.”
But it remains to be seen whether the arrest will weaken the Sinaloa cartel or reduce violence in Mexico.
The capture of a top capo can lead to internal wars of succession, or encourage rival cartels to attempt a takeover. Guzman made a lot of enemies in turf wars against the Zetas and other cartels.
Analysts say Guzman’s top associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, could peacefully seize the reins.
Laundry cart escape
Guzman gained legendary status after escaping from a maximum-security prison in a laundry cart in January 2001.
Folk ballads known as “narcocorridos,” tributes to drug capos, sang his praises. His third wife, Emma Coronel, is a former beauty queen.
Guzman was branded “Public Enemy Number One” in Chicago, joining American gangster Al Capone as the only criminal to ever get the moniker.
Born into a humble family of farmers in the Sinaloa village of Badiraguato, Guzman reached Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s most powerful people, standing at number 67, and was once listed as a billionaire.
Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations, said hiding in the rustic Sinaloa mountains was too much for a man of Guzman’s wealth.
“He has to start going down to the city to enjoy the comforts of his wealth. And he does it more and more, and that was his fatal mistake,” Vigil said.